Here is an icon of the Zachatie, the “Meeting of Joachim and Anna the Righteous.” It is a noted scene from a kind of backstory to the Christmas account. You will not find Joachim or Anna mentioned anywhere in the Bible. They appear in the cycle of legends recorded in the Protoevangelion (Protoevangelium) of James, originally written in Greek, but later translated into Slavonic. It had a strong influence on the iconography of the parentage and birth of Mary and of Jesus.

According to the story, in biblical times Joachim was very wealthy, and like other “Israelites” he brought a significant offering to the Temple. There a fellow named Rubim saw him, and reproachfully remarked that Joachim was not worthy to bring an offering because he had no child.

That depressed Joachim so much that instead of going home to his wife Anna, he went off into the wilderness and lived in a tent there and fasted (went without food) for forty days and nights, spending all his time in prayer.

Now right away we know that we are in the land of “fairy tale,” because first there is the motif of the unhappy parents who have no child, a common fairy tale motif. And of course the ending is always that they somehow get an unusual child. Second, there is the symbolic “forty days and forty nights.” In the story of Noah and the ark, it rained forty days and forty nights; when Moses went up onto the mountain, he was there forty days and forty nights; when Jesus went out into the wilderness, he fasted forty days and forty nights.

Meanwhile, Anna was lamenting the absence of her husband and the lack of a child from their marriage. But eventually she dressed herself well and went into a garden, sat under a laurel tree, and prayed for a child.

Suddenly an angel appeared and said, “Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer, and you shall conceive and shall bring forth; and your child shall be spoken of in all the world.

Anna remarked that were that to happen, she would bring the child as a gift to the Lord.

And then there were two angels, telling Anna that her husband Joachim was on the way back with his flocks.

Joachim was coming back because an angel had appeared to him too, saying “Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down away; for behold, your wife Anna shall conceive.”

If you look at the icon above, at upper right we see the angel appearing to Anna, and at upper left the angel appearing to Joachim.

The story continues that Joachim came back bringing quite a number of lambs and calves and goats, some as an offering to God (read “sacrifice” — this was in the days of animal sacrifice) and others for the priests, elders, and people.

And now we get to the main scene on the icon:

And, behold, Joachim came with his flocks; and Anna stood by the gate, and saw Joachim coming, and she ran and hung upon his neck, saying: Now I know that the Lord God has blessed me exceedingly; for, behold the widow [is] no longer a widow, and I the [one who is] childless shall conceive.

So that is the story behind the Zachatie, the Meeting of Joachim and Anna. In the Western version known as The Golden Legend (of Jacobus Voragine) the angel tells Anna to go and meet the returning Joachim at the “Gate called Golden” in Jerusalem.

All of this material is leading, of course, up to the story of the birth and childhood of Mary, mother of Jesus, and daughter of Joachim and Anna according to the Protoevangelion, but that is represented in other icons.

For today I will just add that if the title of Mary in icons –“Birthgiver of God” or “Mother of God” strikes you as a bit strange, her mother Anna (St. Anne in the West) is given one that sounds even stranger — “Grandmother of God.” There was controversy over giving Mary the “Mother of God” title in early Christianity, but those in favor of it won out in the 5th century (431), and those against it suddenly became “heretics” as a result.

The scene as depicted in this particular icon always strikes me as unintentionally amusing, because if you look closely, you will notice that the painter has placed Joachim so that he appears to be standing on Anna’s right foot.


In a previous posting, I touched briefly on the interesting icon type known as Sophia, Wisdom of God. Here is one rendering:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

It depicts a red-faced, winged angel sitting on a throne in the center of the image.  That angel is Sophia, Wisdom of God.  It is a representation of Jesus as Holy Wisdom.  If you look just above Sophia, you will see the conventional figure of Jesus.  But what we are seeing in this icon is not two persons, but rather Jesus in his conventional aspect and Jesus in his aspect of Holy Wisdom.  You will also note that this icon type, with Mary approaching on one side and John the Baptist (“John the Forerunner” in Eastern Orthodoxy) on the other, is a variant of the “Deisis” type (the other two approaching figures are “Holy Apostle John the Theologian” at left and John Chrysostom at right). The starry bands at top represent heaven, in which sits “Lord Savaof” (Sabaoth), God the Father depicted as an old man. This rendering varies from the norm in that the painter has placed the seven pillars in the background, instead of depicting them as five small uprights supporting the throne. This “enthroned angel” image of Sophia, Wisdom of God is known as the “Novgorod” type, because it first appeared in the northern trading city of Novgorod in the 15th century. It is also the most commonly-seen image of Sophia.

There is, however, another and rather more complex “Sophia, Wisdom of God” type, the so-called “Kiev” Sophia. It is a slightly variable type, but the description given here should take you far in understanding and recognizing it. It is noteworthy that the “Kiev” type is customarily painted in the Westerized manner that began to be adopted in Russian icon painting in the latter half of the 17th century.

Here is the Sophia, Wisdom of God “Kievskaya”:

The “Kiev” type is noted for its groups of sevens, though some versions of the image skimp on these, using fewer elements. But here is what the full type generally comprises:

Like the “Novgorod” image, it has its basis in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs in the Septuagint version, which gives us the first “seven.”


The image depicts a circular temple, and around the base of its dome is written Proverbs 9:1 in Greek:


Here it is in mixed case:

Η σοφια ωκοδομησεν εαυτη οικον και υπηρεισεν στυλους επτα (unaccented)
Η σοφία ᾠκοδόμησεν ἑαυτῇ οἶκον καὶ ὑπήρεισε στύλους ἑπτά (accented)
He Sophia okodomesen heaute oikon kai hypereise stylous hepta (transliteration, old style)

It is also generally written around the dome base in its Church Slavic version:

Premudrost sozda sebe dom/ i utverdi stolpov sedm

Both mean: Wisdom (Premudrost) has built (sozda) herself (sebe) a house (dom)/temple (khram) and (i) set up (utverdi) pillars (stolpov ) seven (sedm). Some texts use dom’ (ДОМЪ; house) while others use Khram’ (ХРАМЪ; temple).

At the top is Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) represented as a bearded old man, often with a triangular halo (a late adoption into Orthodox iconography) signifying the Trinity; He is breathing forth the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and his breath extends to the central image of Mary. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the Holy Spirit is believed to proceed from the Father, but in Roman Catholicism from the Father and the Son. This (the so-called Filioque (“…and from the Son”) was an issue of contention in the schism that finally separated the two segments of Christianity in the mutual cursings (anathemas) and excommunications the two divisions laid on one another in 1054.


They are shown with their symbols, which may vary from icon to icon:
Michael with a sword, Uriel with a flame, Raphael with a vessel of medicaments, Gabriel with a blossoming lily, Selaphiel with hands crossed in prayer, Yegudiel with a crown (in some icons a whip is added), and Barachiel with flowers (roses) on a white cloth.


Depicted on the seven pillars are noted items mentioned in sevens from the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation); and depicted with accompanying gifts of the Holy Spirit, the latter coming from Isaiah 11:2-3:

“And the Spirit of God shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and godliness shall fill him; the spirit of the fear of God.”

In Church Slavic it reads (Russian font):

И почиет на немъ духъ божий, духъ премудрости и разума, духъ совета и крепости, духъ ведения и благочестия: исполнитъ его духъ страха божия… I pochiet na nem dukh bozhiy, dukh preudrosti i razuma, dukh soveta i kreposti, dukh vedeniya i blagochestiya: ispolnit ego dukh strakha bozhiya…

They usually are, from left to right:

1. A book with seven seals; (“The Gift of Wisdom”);
Revelation 5:5: “And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.

2. A seven-branched candlestick; (“The Gift of Understanding”);
Revelation 1:12: “And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks…

3. Seven eyes; (“The Gift of Counsel”);
Revelation 5:6: “...and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.

4. Seven trumpets; (“The Gift of Strength”);
Revelation 8:2: “And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.

5. A hand with seven stars (“The Gift of Knowledge”);
Revelation 1:16: “And he had in his right hand seven stars…

6. Seven golden vials; (“The Gift of Piety/Godliness”)
Revelation 15:7: “And one of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God, who liveth for ever and ever.”

7. Seven thunders; (The Gift of the Fear of God”).
Revelation 10:3; “…and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.

In the center of the temple Mary stands on a crescent moon; twelve stars are in her halo, representing both the twelve apostles (New Testament) and the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Old Testament); the image is taken from Revelation 12:1:
And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars…

Christ Immanuel is on her breast, and her arms are outstretched in the ancient posture of prayer. It is the importance given to Mary in this image, as well as its usual classification among Marian icons, that has led to some confusion. Some mistake Mary for Wisdom, when traditionally Jesus, who is visually only a small part of this image, is Wisdom. In Roman Catholicism, Mary was looked on as being Wisdom, but this view was not the traditional view of Eastern Orthodoxy; however Catholicism — particularly from the latter part of the 17th century and in some respects even earlier — had an influence on Orthodox iconography, and Kiev was subject to that influence.

At Mary’s sides are seven Old Testament figures: Moses with the tablets of the Law, Aaron the first priest with a blossoming rod, King David with the Ark of the Covenant, the Prophet Isaiah with a scroll showing the text of Isaiah 7:14, beginning “Behold a Virgin shall conceive and shall bear a son…” (Се Дева во чреве приимет и родит СынаSe Deva vo chreve priimet i rodit Suina), the Prophet Jeremiah with a rod, the Prophet Ezekiel with closed doors, and the Prophet Daniel with the stone not cut by hands.

It is noteworthy that these figures are connected with what are considered in Eastern Orthodoxy prefigurations of Mary:

Moses, who saw the bush that burned but was not consumed, used as a prefiguration of Mary holding Jesus within her womb. But here he holds the tablets of the Law, and a scroll that says of Mary, Радуйся, скрижале Божия, на ней же перстом Отчим написася слово Божие — Raduisya, skrizhale Bozhiya, na nei zhe perstom Otchim napisasya slovo Bozhie — “Rejoice, Tablets of God, on which the finger of the father has written the Word of God.” Thus the Law tablets become the prefiguration of Mary as the “tablets” on which Jesus was written, i.e. was incarnated in Christian belief.

Aaron with his blossoming rod: Numbers 17:8: “And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds.” This prefigures Mary giving birth to Jesus.

King David with the Ark of the Covenant: Mary is considered the Ark of the New Testament Covenant, containing Jesus as the Ark of the Old Testament contained the Law — the Old Covenant.

Isaiah 7:14 in Christian tradition is applied to the birth of Jesus from a virgin (though the Hebrew text of Isaiah merely says “young woman” and has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus).

Jeremiah with his rod of almond tree: Jeremiah 1:11: “Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Jeremiah, what seest thou? And I said, I see a rod of an almond tree.” This relates to the rod of Aaron.

Ezekiel with closed doors: Ezekiel 44:2: “Then said the Lord unto me; This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut.” That is a symbol of the virgin birth and of Mary’s supposed perpetual virginity, a doctrine held by both Eastern Orthodox and Catholics).

Daniel with the uncut stone: Daniel 2:34 “Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces.” (Again, a symbol of virginity).


There are seven steps leading to the temple (which represents the Church, as well as Mary as the “house” of Jesus). From bottom to top they are:

1. Vera: Faith
2. Nadezhda; Hope
3. Liubov; Love
4. Chistota; Purity
5. Smirenie; Humility
6. Blagodat‘ Blessing/Grace
7. Slava; Glory


Look at this Russian icon:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

Even without the inscription, it is immediately identifiable to an informed student of icons, because the scene is so distinctive. Nonetheless, let’s look at the title inscription. Here it is in a modern Russian font:




Do not be concerned with little differences in spelling from example to example.

So, this icon depicts The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste Martyred at the Sebaste Lake, or simply the “Forty Martyrs of Sebaste” as they are commonly called. According to their story, the 4th century ruler Licinius wanted to rid his army of Christians. In Armenia, a military commander named Agricolaus was unhappy with forty soldiers, all Christians, who refused to sacrifice to the Gods. This was a major issue in those days, because refusal to sacrifice not only made Romans think the Christians were atheists, but also that they were revolutionaries, because traditionally it was the Gods who were the support of the State.

As punishment, the forty soldiers were led, in winter, out onto a frozen lake and made to remain there through the night unless they gave in and made the appropriate sacrifice. An inviting bathhouse was fired up on the shore with warm water. As the night proceeded, one soldier could not take the intense cold any longer, so decided to make the sacrifice, and went to the bathhouse. According to tradition, he fell down dead as soon as he stepped through the entrance.

Later in the night the soldiers still suffering on the icy lake supposedly had a vision. There was a light from heaven, and the water of the lake suddenly turned warm and melted the ice.

All guards were asleep except for one, who looked out on the lake and saw 39 crowns appear in the sky over the heads of the martyrs. He woke up the other guards and told them that he had decided to become a Christian, and he then went into the lake with the other martyrs.

When morning came and the martyrs in the lake were found still alive, they were taken from the lake, their legs were broken, and then they were piled onto a cart and taken away and burned.

Of course this is just a brief summary, and there are many more of the typical frills in the full story that one finds in the accounts of saints. Such elaborations make it very difficult to determine what in such tales may have an historical basis and what is just the fantasizing of the hagiographers (those who write stories of saints). As I have written in previous postings, some saints are entirely fictional, and some lives are a mixture of history and fiction in varying ratio and percentage.

As for this particular icon, it is painted in the old style maintained by the Old Believers (in opposition to the Westernized style adopted by the State Church). Usually one finds the forty martyrs in white trousers, but here the painter has added a bit of visual interest by giving some of the “undies” pastel colors.

We can see the soldier who gave up and went into the bathouse on the left, and we see the guard kneeling in the foreground who has decided to become a Christian and join the martyrs. In the clouds above, Jesus blesses them and sends down the crowns of martyrdom.

The building at left and the hills at right are typical of the traditional scenery of icons. In Russia such a building is called a “palace,” so the backgrounds of icons are commonly “hills and palaces,” or as we would say, “hills and buildings.” And of course both are stylized.

Here is a detail to show you how hills were painted in the traditional manner as it had developed by the 19th century:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

One can easily see that first a hill is painted in its base color, then the “steps” of the hill are formed by overpainting in the same color lightened with white, and finished with white highlights.

The lake water is indicated by simply painting swirling, concentric, thin white lines over the darker background color. And the clouds are formed in the snail-like fashion typical of the Old Believer painters in the region of the “three villages,” Palekh, Mstera, and Kholui.


This is a Greek icon print from the middle of the 19th century. The saint depicted is very popular in iconography, particularly in Greek iconography — Marina.


The title just above the image reads Η ΑΓΙΑ ΜΑΡΙΝΑ I AGIA MARINA (HE HAGIA MARINA in old form), “[the] HOLY MARINA.”

As you can see, Marina is busily whacking away with a hammer at a devil. This is an incident in her hagiography, the story of her life as given out for popular consumption. Marina is one of two prominent saints who are shown beating a devil. The other is St. Nikita, found commonly in Russian icons.

The story of Marina, put briefly, is this:

Marina was said to have been born in Antioch in Asia minor to a pagan couple. Her father was a pagan priest who sent the girl to be raised by a nurse in the countryside. Marina, as a young girl, was converted to Christianity, which infuriated her father, and led to his disowning her.

She was quite pretty, and when fifteen years old she met, in the countryside, the eparch Olimvriy (Olymbrios), the ruler of the region and an avid persecutor of Christians. He saw the beautiful maiden and was smitten. He proposed marriage on the spot. She, however, replied that she was a servant of Jesus and desired no other groom.

Not giving up, the eparch ordered his soldiers to bring the girl along with them to the city, hoping to change her mind. Once there, he first offered sacrifices to his gods, then had Marina brought for questioning. He told her bluntly that if she gave up Christianity he would marry her, but if not, she would be tortured and would die.

Marina, as is customary in these stories, steadfastly refused, saying that she would not leave her bridegroom Jesus to marry a “stinking dog.” Needless to say, the eparch was not pleased.

He ordered Marina to be beaten, which she was until the blood flowed, but still she would not relent. So he added further tortures, but again her refusal was steadfast. Severely wounded as she was, the eparch then had Marina locked in a deep, dark prison.

That night the devil came to her in dark fire and smoke, in a form like a dragon, and opening his huge mouth, he began to swallow Marina; but she made the sign of the cross, which split the dragon open, and he disappeared. Then the devil came again as a very dark man, and she grabbed his hair and beat him with a hammer; again he disappeared. He came once more, threatening her with death, but this time she whipped him. Then a great light shone from Heaven into her cell, and Maria, seeing in it a bright cross and a dove, also heard a heavenly voice encouraging her. All of her wounds began to heal until she was once more beautiful and strong.

The next day the Eparch had her brought to him again, and was surprised to see her well. He told her it was the doing of his gods, to whom she should therefore sacrifice and become a priestess. She refused.

Again she was tortured. To make a long story short, onlookers were converted by her zeal, and Christ came from Heaven to take her to himself as she was beheaded.

It seems straightforward, if stereotypical; but actually the traditional accounts of the life and martyrdom of Marina are very confused. In the Golden Legend of Jacobus Voragine, which became a “best-seller” in the medieval West, Marina mysteriously becomes instead a St. Margareta (Margaret), but her story is essentially the same as that above, with slight variations. Here is the “devil” episode as recorded of St. Margaret in the Golden Legend:

And there was seen a marvellous brightness in the prison by the keepers. And while she was in prison she prayed her Lord that he would visibly show unto her the fiend that had fought with her. And there appeared an horrible dragon and assailed her and would have devoured her. But she made the sign of the cross and anon he vanished away. In another place it is said that he swallowed her in his belly, she making the sign of the cross, and the belly broke asunder and so she came out all whole and sound. This swallowing and breaking of the belly of the dragon is said that it is apocryphal…

After this the devil appeared to her in likeness of a man to deceive her. And when she saw him she went to prayer. And after she arose and the fiend came to her and took her by the hand and said: “That which you have done suffices to you; but now cease as to my person.” She caught him by the head and threw him to the ground, and set her right foot on his neck, saying: “Lie still, you fiend, under the foot of a woman.” The devil then cried: “O blessed Margaret, I am overcome. If a young man had overcome me I had not recked, but alas I am overcome of a tender virgin, wherefore I make the more sorrow.”

Then she constrained that fiend to tell why he came to her. And he answered that he came to her to counsel her for to obey the desire and request of the provost. Then she constrained him to say wherefore he tempted so much and so oft Christian people. To whom he answered that naturally he hated virtuous men. “And though we be oft put aback from them, yet our desire is much to exclude them from the felicity that we have fell from. For we may never obtain nor recover our bliss that we have lost.” And then she demanded what he was. And he answered: “I am named Veltis, one of them whom Solomon enclosed in a vessel of brass. And after his death it happened that they of Babylon found this vessel and thought to have found great treasure therein. And they broke the vessel and then a great multitude of us devils flew out and filled full the air, alway awaiting and espying where we may assail rightful men.” And when he had said thus, she took off her foot and said to him: “Flee hence, you wretched fiend.” And anon the earth opened and the fiend sank in.

Does the last part remind you of anything? It should. Remember the story from the Arabian Nights (The Thousand and One Nights) of the fisherman who finds a bottle sealed with the seal of Solomon on the beach, and he then opens it and releases from it a terrible jinni (genie) who has been held captive in the bottle for centuries?

You will recall that the fisherman pulls his net from the water and finds in it only a metal bottle:

…a bottle of brass, filled with something, and having its mouth closed with a stopper of lead, bearing the impression of the seal of our lord Suleymán [King Solomon]. At the sight of this, the fisherman was rejoiced, and said, This I will sell in the copper-market; for it is worth ten pieces of gold. He then shook it, and found it to be heavy, and said, I must open it, and see what is in it, and store it in my bag; and then I will sell the bottle in the copper-market. So he took out a knife, and picked at the lead until he extracted it from the bottle. He then laid the bottle on the ground, and shook it, that its contents might pour out; but there came forth from it nothing but smoke, which ascended towards the sky, and spread over the face of the earth; at which he wondered excessively. And after a little while, the smoke collected together, and was condensed, and then became agitated, and was converted into an ‘Efreet [a kind of jinn/genie], whose head was in the clouds, while his feet rested upon the ground: his head was like a dome: his hands were like winnowing forks; and his legs, like masts: his mouth resembled a cavern: his teeth were like stones; his nostrils, like trumpets; and his eyes, like lamps; and he had dishevelled and dust-coloured hair.

In contrast to this Margaret, The St. Marina described in the Golden Legend is a woman who disguises herself as a man so she can enter a monastery. Quite a different tale. And to confuse matters even more, some think our St. Marina is just an erroneous version of the life of a saint who likely did exist, a St. Pelagia of Antioch in Syria (not the same Antioch as in the “Marina” tale); Marina means “of the sea” in Latin, as does Pelagia in Greek.

In any case, as long-time readers here know, the lives of saints are often quite untrustworthy and garbled and partly or wholly fictionalized, even those of some of the most prominent and frequent in icons.

I mentioned earlier that the other saint known as a devil-beater in icons is the Great Martyr Nikita, known also as St. Nicetas the Goth. One finds not only icons of him beating a devil with chains, but also icons simply showing him as a warrior saint in Roman armor, holding a spear.

Look at this icon of Nikita. Do you notice anything peculiar? Does he look like someone else you may have seen in icons?

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Right. Take away the armour and spear, and he looks exactly like Jesus as depicted in Russian iconography. In fact the old podlinniki – the painter’s manuals — say that Nikita is to be painted брада н власы аки спасовы — brada i vlasui aki spasovui — meaning “beard and hair like the Savior’s.” You may recall that there is another saint whose face is also just like that of Jesus — the Old Testament Joshua (Joshua and Jesus are the same name in Hebrew and in Greek).


Today I would like to discuss palladium icons.

What is a palladium? The name originates in Greek myth. There was, it is said, an ancient wooden image of the goddess Athena kept in the city of Troy, and the image — said to have fallen from heaven — was the great protector of the city. By extension, a palladium is any image believed to protect or ward off evil from a city or country.

This notion of a palladium did not end with the fall of the classical world. It was adopted by Byzantine Christianity — which we now call Eastern Orthodoxy. According to the story of Aeneus, the Troy palladium was eventually brought to Rome. Whatever the truth of the matter, when the Emperor Constantine (considered a saint in Eastern Orthodoxy) founded Constantinople, a statue of him was placed on a hundred-foot stone pillar there. In the hand of the statue was an image of the goddess Tyche, who was believed to protect a city; the Romans called her Fortuna; and it is said that within the pillar itself was placed a mixture of “pagan” and Christian relics, among them an axe used by Noah, the ointment container used by Mary Magdalene, pieces of the loaves from the miraculous feeding of the multitude by Jesus, and notably the Palladium image of Athena that Aeneas had supposedly brought from Troy to Rome.

Now we need not concern ourselves with the authenticity of these items; what is important is that they were believed at the time to be genuine, and belief can be a powerful force.

So not only did the “New Rome” Constantinople continue the notion of a city-protecting image, but it also transferred that notion from the pre-Christian “pagan” world into the new Christian world of Byzantium.

Not surprisingly, when Eastern Orthodoxy came to Kievan Rus and that state was converted to Christianity by edict of the Great Prince Vladimir in 988 c.e., this notion of a city-protecting sacred object was not abandoned. But now, instead of an image of the warrior Goddess Athena, the new protecting images depicted Mary, called “Mother of God” in Eastern Orthodoxy.

That is why we find the icon as palladium repeatedly in Russian history. Let’s take a look at some examples of palladia:

Here is the very well-known image known as the Znamenie or “Sign” icon of Mary:

In the 1100s there was a very important merchant city-state on the long trade route from northeastern Europe (think northern Germany and Scandinavia) down to Constantinople. It was the city of Novgorod (literally “new town”), called Novgorod the Great, which gives you an idea of its significance. All kinds of wares and valuables passed to and fro through the city, which made it a rich prize.

About 1169-1170 it was attacked by the forces of Great Prince Andrei Bogoliubskiy (see my article on the “Bogoliubskaya” Mother of God icon). To protect the city, the icon of the “Sign” Mother of God was taken from its place in the Transfiguration Church to the walls of the city, facing the attacking Suzdalians.

The Suzdalians shot a great volley of arrows at those on the walls, one of which struck the face of Mary. According to the legend, the icon turned its face away from the Suzdalians toward the city, and began to weep. At the same time the attackers were seized by a great fear, their sight was obscured, and they began to fight one another. Seeing this, the Novgorodians opened their gates and poured out upon the Suzdalians, defeating them at this moment of great weakness. The Novgorodians were said to have been assisted in their attack on the Suzdalians by saints and angels.

Not only are there countless renditions of the “Sign” Mother of God icon, but there are also old icons depicting the attack of the Suzdalians and their repulsion buy the icon.

We see from this not only how an icon may be used as a palladium, but also another example of how, in Russian (and Greek) Orthodox tradition, icons can behave like living beings. The icon is “wounded”; it “turns its face”; it “weeps.” We also see the intimate historical connection between Church and State, which extended from the conversion of Russia in 988 c.e. up to the fall of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and the Russian Revolution. Now, unfortunately, we are seeing a revival of that old Church-State bond, in spite of all the trouble it has caused over the centuries.

The city-state of Novgorod flourished long as a republic, and was never conquered by the Mongols. Nonetheless, in 1478 Novgorod was taken over by the greater power in Moscow, and its importance faded.

The battle of the Novgorodians and the Suzdalians is not the only instance of the “Sign” icon used as a palladium. When a great fire broke out in 1566 (remember that wooden construction was common in those days), Metropolitan Makariy again went to the church, prayed before the icon, then carried it in formal procession along the Volkhov River. It is said that the wind then changed direction, and the fire was halted.

When the Swedes captured and plundered Novgorod in 1611, it is said that some of them came to rob the church where the icon was kept, but every time they tried to enter, they were pushed back by an invisible force, so the church was left unharmed.

In 1636 it is said that a silvermith named Luka Plavisshchikov hid in the church one evening after the service, planning to rob it; by night he took the silver vessels from the altar, as well as money, and then went to the icon to rip off the valuables with which it had been ornamented. But when he touched the icon, he was knocked unconscious to the floor. The next morning the church sexton saw him lying there before the icon, and thought he was drunk. It is said that the thief lost his mind for some time, but eventually recovered and told the story of his attempted robbery and of how the icon prevented it.

The next great palladium icon is also the most famous icon of Russia — the “Vladimir” image of Mary. Here is a rendition of it in the later “red” style that was popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Icons painted in this “red” style can vary from a simple and very folkish manner to more sophisticated renditions. The example shown here is one of the finest in this style that I have seen. These “red” icons should not be cleaned, if it can at all be avoided, because the gold backgrounds are the result of a tinted varnish over a metal leaf background, not real gold leaf; so if that varnish is removed, the color of the background changes completely, from the intended gold to silver.

But back to the original image of the type:

It has an extensive story, but here are a few highlights: In 1164 Great Prince Andrei Bogoliubskiy took it in his military campaign against the Volga Bulgars and his victory was attributed to the help of the icon.

After Andrei was killed by boyars in 1173, the city of Vladimir broke out in looting and chaos. A priest named Nicholas then took the Vladimir icon in procession through the streets, and the outbreak subsided.

At the end of the 14th century, with the invasion of Russia by Tamerlane, the icon was taken from Vladimir to Moscow, much to the dismay of the people of Vladimir, who were said to have wept and cried to the departing icon, “Where are you going from us, O Most Pure One? Why are you leaving us orphans?”

Along the way to Moscow, crowds lined both sides of the road kneeling and shouting, “Матерь Божия, спаси землю русскую!” — Mater Bozhiya, spasi zemliu russkuyu – “Mother of God, save the Russian Land!” When it reached Moscow, the icon was greeted there by all the clergy of the city, as well as the nobles and the family of the Great prince.

As a result of all this, Tamerlane, sleeping in his tent, is said to have had a dream in which he saw Mary in a blaze of light, surrounded by angels with fiery swords. He awoke in great fright, summoned his council, and told his dream, asking what it meant. They told him that he had seen the Protectress of the Russian land. Tamerlane, regarding all this as a very bad sign, then turned his forces back and gave up the attack. The icon is said to have again protected Moscow from the Tatars in 1408, as well as several times in later years.

Finally, today, we come to the latest of these three famous palladium icons, the “Kazan” icon of Mary. Here is just one of countless renditions:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

The Kazan icon is said to have appeared after its existence was revealed in a dream (you will have noticed by now that this “dream” motif is very common in the tales associated with icons). It is said to have saved Russia during the “Time of Troubles” in 1605-1612, when the country was invaded by the Poles, who even took control of Moscow. A special commemoration of the saving of Moscow by the icon was set on October 22 annually. That date is significant also because, during the French invasion of Russia under Napoleon, it was on the October 22nd memorial of the icon that the first major Russian defeat of the French in battle took place. It is said that thanks to the Kazan icon, on that day snow and freezing weather began that was so severe an obstacle to the French troops that it led to their ultimate defeat.

It is not difficult to see the psychological value in war of palladium icons that are supposed to be divine protectors of a city or country, and that of course contributes to the attribution of victories to them. Defeats receive far less attention. There was, for example, a “new” icon that was painted at the time of the Russo-Japanese War of 1914-1905 by Pavel Fedorovich Shtronda.

The story is that Mary appeared to an old sailor in Kiev in a dream (again, that dream motif!) on December 11, 1903, telling him that a war was coming, and that an icon should be painted of her as she appeared in the vision, and sent to the church at Port Arthur on the Pacific Coast. She promised it would protect and bring victory to the Russian troops there. The cost of painting the icon was paid by thousands of donations by those who heard the tale of the old man’s vision. Two months after the supposed vision, the war began. But when the icon was sent, it only got as far as Vladivostok, because Port Arthur itself was under siege, surrounded by Japanese troops. An attempt was made by a retired captain to bring the icon into the city, but on January 11th of 1905 he reported that the icon could not be delivered because Port Arthur had already fallen to the Japanese.

The Port Arthur icon fell completely from notice as a consequence, until it was said to have been found in an antique shop in Jerusalem by some pilgrims from Vladivostok in February of 1998. On May 6, 1998, the icon was received back in Vladivostok. There are not many copies of this Порт-Артурская — Port-Arturskaya — “Port Arthur” icon, and those that exist are likely to be quite recent. Being a “State Church” icon, it is painted in the Westernized manner.

It is interesting that the notion here is that the icon — like a person — has to be actually present in the city to protect it. In any case, these palladia may or may not “work.” The believers will say something like “It is due to whether the people sincerely repent or not,” but most of us will see the victories supposedly won by palladium icons as just a reflection of the ironic remark by Higgs in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon: “As luck would have it, Providence was on my side.”

And that brings us back full circle to the statue of Constantine, standing atop its pillar in Constantinople, holding a miniature image of the Goddess Tyche (Τύχη) on its outstretched hand. Tyche is Luck, she is Fortune. And she might protect your city, or as history has demonstrated, she might not. It’s all a matter of luck — “As luck would have it, Providence was on my side.”


I have mentioned previously how icon painting in Russia changed drastically from the latter part of the 1600s onwards. And I have mentioned that the survival of the old stylized manner of icon painting survived largely due to the ultra-conservatism of the Old Believers, who not only refused the innovations in ritual and text forced on them by the Patriarch Nikon, but also kept to the old style of icon painting, scorning the western innovations favored later by Tsar Peter “The Great.”

I have mentioned too how the “official” Russian Orthodox Church, working hand in hand with the Tsar in the 1600s, had the chief voice of the Old Believers — the Archpriest Avvakum — murdered — they burnt him at the stake. And when the State Church went after the other Old Believers, they escaped and spread into distant regions farther from the Church and State authorities, moving into northern Russia, into the Urals and Siberia, and down among the Cossacks and into other regions where they might be safer.

Nonetheless, some of the Old Believers, when threatened by the forces of the Tsar, locked themselves inside their wooden churches and set them on fire, preferring to die in flames rather than to accept what they considered to be the great heresy that had come into the Russian Orthodox Church through the innovations of Nikon.

And that is today’s odd topic — the odd connection one finds between the Old Believers and fire.

Fire, in Russian, is огонь — ogon‘. Russian being an Indo-European language, it is not difficult to see that the Russian word is in essence the same as the Sanskrit Agni, which, in addition to meaning “fire,” is also the name of the Vedic God of Fire, to whom sacrifices are made. So there is an interesting psychological link here with the Old Believer way of thinking.

The Old Believers saw fire as both a purifier and a connection to the end of the world and the Last Judgement. It is not surprising that we see this reflected in their icons.

The Old Believers were the chief makers of cast metal icons, and they saw in them images that were created by fire rather than painted by the hand of man.

They were also fond of icons of the Prophet Elijah (Iliya), who through his prayers was able to call down fire from heaven upon his sacrifice. So we find many Old Believer icons of Elijah that include the “Fiery Ascension of the Prophet Elijah,” as in this example, painted by a very skilled artist:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

Let’s take a look at the identifying inscription, apparently written by a hand other than that of the painter of the image, which was a common practice:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)


We see, as the central image, Elijah seated in his cave in the wilderness. Around him are scenes with his follower Elisha, showing Elijah parting the waters of the Jordan River with his mantle (on one side), and (on the other side) is Elisha doing the same with the mantle dropped to him from Elijah’s fiery chariot, the scene at the top. At lower left is an angel about to awaken Elijah to eat the food brought to him.

Here is a detail of the fiery horses; note how the painter has delineated them in just black and white, with the flames doing the rest:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

And here is a closer view of Elijah ascending in the fiery chariot. Look at the gold highlighting on his garments:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

Look closely at his garments again in this detail showing the angel awakening Elijah:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

There is something interesting about the technique here. You may have noted that the highlights on the garments are gold. That was made possible by gilding the entire background of the icon, then painting the figures over it. The highlights were then added by removing paint from the area to be highlighted, revealing the gold base beneath. This is in contrast to highlighting practiced in many icons simply by lightening the base color with white, or by adding gilding over the garments. This method of “removing to reveal” the gold beneath was very effective, and makes for very striking icons.

Look also at the trees and leaves in the background. Though the Old Believers were careful to keep to stylization in the figures of the saints, it is not uncommon to see touches of westernization in the painting of the background landscape, and in the trees and leaves seen here, which are not as radically stylized as in earlier times.

Finally, we can see the skill of the face painter in this detail, showing careful whitened highlighting over the sankir (dark brown) base, and the painting of beard and hair by the persistent adding of very fine, white lines.

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

The inscription in the halo reads “Holy Prophet Elijah.”


One thing the serious student of icons learns quite soon is not to mistake the accounts of the lives of the saints celebrated in Eastern Orthodoxy for actual history. Though the percentage of fact to fiction varies from saint to saint, some, as we have seen in previous postings here, are entirely fictional.

The icon saint I want to discuss today is one of the most prominent, and was famous not only in Russia but also throughout the pre-Protestant Christian world — St. George.

Paradoxically, however, George is also one of the most heavily fictionalized saints. Did he exist at all? Samantha Riches, in her book St. George; Hero, Martyr and Myth, writes that “there is no aspect of St. George’s life that is incontrovertible, whether his birthplace, profession, the year of his death or details of his tortures.” It is true that if we investigate all of the early documents purporting to tell the life of George, we find a mass of contradictory disparities. And again, As Riches writes, “The net result is that none of the competing camps are able to offer a truly convincing explanation of who St. George was, or indeed, if he actually existed at all.”

What we do know is that churches were dedicated to George early on, and that as a reputed martyr saint his veneration was very widespread, and the stories told of him and his miracles only multiplied in extravagance. Whether originally so or not, George came to be noted as a military saint, which is why he is customarily depicted in armor.

His most popular image, of course, is as the dragonslayer, as in this Novgorod icon from the 1400s:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

George is commonly depicted in icons in three ways:

1. Standing without armor or weapons, as in the “Deisis” ranks of the iconostasis;
2. Standing with armor and weapons, as in his individual icons and with other saints;
3. As dragon slayer.

Here is an example of the first form, an iconostasis panel showing George robed but without armor or weapons. The image in this icon was uncovered after overlying paint layers were removed to reveal the earliest layer. Patches of the overlay may still be seen; note particularly the later patch at upper right, left on because it contains the saint’s name and title:

(Courtesy of Jacksonauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonauction.com)

Here is an example of the second form, a simply-painted icon showing, at left, the three patron saints of marriage fidelity, Samon, Aviv, and Guriy; and at right George in his Roman armor with lance, the Prophetess Anna (the one from the meeting of Christ in the temple as an infant), and the nun Evdokia (Eudocia), as well as Jesus blessing from the clouds above:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Now we come to the very prevalent and widespread depiction of George as slayer of the dragon:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

It is a very pleasantly stylized icon showing George striking with his lance at the fallen dragon, while in the “palaces” to the right the King and Queen look on, as does their rescued daughter Elisava, standing below. At upper left Christ blesses from the clouds, while an angel descends to place the crown of victory upon George’s head. This is the type in which George is usually given his standard title, Георгий Победоносец — Georgiy Pobedonosets — “George the Victory-bearer,” meaning George the Victorious.

It is the familiar old story of the dragon that had to be placated by being fed periodically, and of lots being cast to decide who to feed to the monster; the lot falls upon the daughter of the pagan king, but George the hero appears and subdues and wounds the dragon, which in the iconic version is then leashed and led by the rescued princess into the city. There George tells the populace that if they will convert to Christianity, he will slay the dragon, which upon their agreement he then does.

It is not hard to see that this is the same kind of thing we find in mythology and in fairy tales. We can recall the Greek story of Perseus saving the princess Andromeda from the sea monster as her parents looked on. And of course for prototypes of the warrior hero in Roman armor on horseback, striking with his lance at a dragon-like creature, we need look no farther than Egyptian depictions of the God Horus fighting the evil God Seth in crocodile form, as in this image from the 300s c.e.:

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Many modern-day Eastern Orthodox tend to now see the “George and the Dragon” icon as a symbol of Good overcoming Evil, or of Christianity overcoming paganism, but of course before modern times Orthodox believers held to a quite literal interpretation in which a real hero George killed a real dragon and saved a real princess. And of course there are still conservative Eastern Orthodox who take the icon as history, just as they consider the world only a few thousand years old. In any case, the earliest textual version of the “George and the Dragon” story dates to the 1100s.

Let’s take a look at another example of this type:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

We can see that things are moved around a bit, and small details change from example to example of this type, but the basic concept remains the same. However, what I want you to notice particularly in this example is the upraised right hand of George that holds the lance:

(Courtesy of jacksonauction.com)

(Courtesy of jacksonauction.com)

The observant student of icons will notice that in addition to holding the lance, the hand also shows the fingers in the position of blessing used by the Old Believers, and used by them as a sign of the “true belief” in opposition to that of the State Russian Orthodox Church, which adopted a different position for the fingers in the middle of the 1600s. So this little detail of the hand is telling us that the painter wanted everyone to know that this was an “Old Believer” icon. And in fact this is a good time to note that most of the “traditional” icons painted in the stylized manner that we find in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries were painted by or for Old Believers. The State Church, you will recall, had adopted the westernized and more realistic manner of painting icons, but the Old Believers stuck tenaciously to the stylized manner that is so popular among collectors and icon enthusiasts today.

One more example of “The Great Martyr George the Victory-bearer” and then we shall call it a day:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

This finely-painted example not only includes the usual elements of the “Dragon” type, but also adds four scenes at the base from the tale of the martyrdom of George.

So, having gone through all of this, was there really a St. George? We know there were early churches dedicated to him, but we also know that the earliest account of his life is full of the usual hagiographical extravagant nonsense, and cannot be regarded as historical. There are various places claiming to have physical relics (meaning bones/body parts) of St. George, but there was a thriving historical trade in fake relics, so that means nothing.

All we can say, then, is that veneration of a saint called George who was considered a martyr existed by the 6th century. But when we look for any definite or conclusive information about details in the life of a real person, we find none, and so St. George remains, in the words of Samantha Riches, “enigma personified.”

My own view is that it hardly matters whether there ever was a real St. George, because no reliable information about him remains, just masses of extravagant, fabricated acts and miracles for this saint who was once “hugely popular” all the way from the Middle East to the British Isles and northern and southern Europe — and of course, throughout the Greek and Slavic realms.

George’s real importance in the lives of Slavic peasants, was as the mythical hero “Yegoriy the Brave,” the militant protector of cattle from wolves and bears, associated not only with the wellbeing of horses but also with the greening of the grass after winter and the pasturing of the cattle. St. George became a kind of nature god, like the Prophet Elijah, whose chariot rolling across the heavens made the thunder. George was, in Russian peasant lore, the one who brought the spring.